MELBOURNE, Australia — Taiwan has requested a fleet of new fighters from the United States, but it didn’t specify a type, leaving it up to the U.S. to recommend an option, according to defense officials.
Taiwanese Deputy Minister of National Defense Shen Yi-ming told reporters that the request for new fighters had been submitted, with the U.S to advise on the type and number of fighter jets that would be required to meet the country’s operational needs.
Speaking at a separate event, the head of the Taiwanese Air Force Command Headquarter’s Planning Division, Maj. Gen. Tang Hung-an, confirmed this, citing for reporters the recently submitted letter of request to the U.S. to buy a batch of fighter jets.
He was quoted by news outlet Focus Taiwan as saying that “the F-15, F-18, F-16 and even the F-35 are all among our options, as long as the jets help to strengthen our air defense capabilities.”
The defense officials were responding to an article in the Chinese language newspaper Apple Daily, which claimed that the request was to purchase a fleet of 66 Lockheed Martin F-16V fighter jets at a cost of $13 billion, as part of a package that would include missiles and related logistics, as well as the training of pilots and maintenance personnel.
The unusual nature of the request puts the onus of the decision on the U.S. and is likely designed to ensure that any Taiwanese request for new fighter jets is not rejected like previous requests, partially out of wariness of angering China, which views Taiwan as a renegade province and has not ruled out the use of force to take back the island.
Previous requests include one for 66 new F-16s, which was rejected by the Obama administration. The White House at the time instead offered to upgrade Taiwan’s existing fleet of about 140 F-16A/B Block 20 aircraft, the first of which have been delivered to Taiwan’s Air Force. However, Tang has noted this process is behind schedule.
Taiwan has also expressed interest to the U.S. government for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, but this was also reportedly rejected over fears the jet’s sensitive technology could fall into Chinese hands. China is said to be running an espionage operation on Taiwan, and there have been several high-profile cases where Taiwanese military personnel were charged with spying for China.
China’s recent efforts at modernizing its military is slowly but surely eroding Taiwanese local superiority, and its economic and diplomatic clout is making countries wary of selling arms to Taiwan for fear of angering China, essentially placing the self-governing island under an arms embargo.
The U.S. is bound by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”
In addition to its F-16s, Taiwan’s Air Force is operating the French Mirage 2000 and the locally made AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo fighters, although all three types date from the 1990s and are due for replacement soon, even after upgrades.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.